Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Pierre Boulez, que me veux-tu?

Pierre Boulez on the cover of his Deutsche Grammophon album of his complete works (from

In continuing to pursue my interest in the relationship between the listener’s point of view and the performer’s point of view, I finally decided to sit down with one of Pierre Boulez’ more notorious essays, whose title is a quotation, “Sonate, que me veux-tu?” The translation is best phrased as “Sonata, what do you want of me?” For some reason I had believed that it originated with Claude Debussy; but it actually goes back to the transition between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and is attributed to Bernard Le Bouvier de Fontenelle. It was a reasonable question for him to ask when there was little sense of “sonata form” other than a collection of movements, not to mention that vast library of single-movement sonatas composed by Domenico Scarlatti.

Boulez chose this title for an article, which was first published in German in 1960 in Darmstädter Beiträge zur neuen Musik. The article was intended as a discussion of his third piano sonata. It was first translated into English by David Noakes and Paul Jacobs for publication in Perspectives of New Music and subsequently translated again by Martin Cooper for Jean-Jacques’ Nattiez’ collection of Boulez’ writings in the volume Orientations. 1960 also happens to be the year in which György Ligeti’s analysis of Boulez’ “Structure Ia” appeared in Die Reihe.

These two essays could not be more different. Most importantly, Ligeti was dealing with a composition that had been completed (in 1951), performed (in 1952), and published by Universal Edition (presumably in time for its first performance). Ligeti’s article is one of meticulous description that addresses the interplay between decision (specific commitments to structure on a variety of different time scales) and automatism (specifications that are  “bound logically” to the decisions). By the end of the article Ligeti even provides the reader with some sense of those “features” emerging from the automatism stage that are likely to be apprehended by attentive listening.

Boulez’ own article could not be more different. It is more like a progress report than an account of a completed composition. The overall structure of the sonata consisted of five “formants,” each of which had its own self-contained logic for both composition and execution. However, after discussing the first three formants, “Antiphonie,” “Trope,” and “Constellation” (which included the “mirror image” “Constellation–Miroir”), Boulez confesses that he will not discuss the remaining two formants, “Strophe” and “Séquence,” because “their forms are not yet definitive, having been put on one side and then interrupted by other works.” Indeed, in the Deutsche Grammophon collection of Boulez’ complete works, the recording of the third sonata, performed by Paavali Jumppanen, accounts for only two of the formants, “Trope” and “Constellation–Miroir.” Any connection between what one reads about these tropes in Boulez’ article and the experience of listening to Jumppanen is left, as they say, as an “exercise for the student!”

However, any shortcomings in Boulez’ talent for the art of verbal description are balanced (so to speak) by the first half of his article, which amounts to no-holds-barred polemic. Reading these outbursts can be entertaining, perhaps even as entertaining as coming up with counterexamples to the more outrageous assertions. However, we must be fair to Boulez and remember that, when he wrote his text, his experience with conducting was probably limited almost entirely to his work in the Domaine musical concert series, almost all of which involved composers who shared his polemic dispositions.

It is probably fair to say that, as a conductor, Boulez’ perspective changed when his attention shifted from his own experiences as a composer to those of past composers, such as Richard Wagner and Gustav Mahler. It is hard to imagine that he approached either of these composers from one of the perspectives he voiced in his sonata paper:
Finally, Western classical music is opposed to all active participation, and this sometimes makes it difficult to establish any really significant contact, even if actual boredom does not intervene between the musical object and the listener contemplating it.
The very fact that he recognized that, in such music, a conductor needed “to sort out the climaxes from the lesser peaks, so that the real ones stand out” (as James Oestreich reported when writing about Boulez for The New York Times) makes it clear that by 2009 (when Oestreich wrote his article) Boulez had distanced himself from his 1960 outburst. Such a sorting-out process necessarily entailed “active participation,” first between conductor and ensemble and subsequently between performers and listeners.

Reading that passage reminds me of when Roger Sessions held the Norton Chair at Harvard University and gave his requisite six “poetics” lectures. What I remember most from that experience was Sessions’ remark that a composer should be able to listen to something he wrote ten years earlier without blushing. While the noun “sang-froid” tends to come to mind whenever my thoughts turn to Boulez’ personality, I have to wonder: Did he ever reread his 1960 diatribe against Western classical music later in life; and could he do so without blushing?

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